In her newly published book "Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity," Elizabeth Currid-Halkett explores our collective fascination with the lives of certain people in our culture, most commonly movie stars, recording artists, tycoons, YouTube sensations (a modern phenomenon) and, of course, sports heroes. Our obsession with the "anointed ones" is expressed through our rapt attention to the details of their lives: their romantic interests, where they vacation, how they spend their money, their rehab status (where applicable) and, in the case of professional sports stars, what cities they'll be taking their talents to under their new employment contracts.
Currid-Halkett notes that what qualifies someone to be a "celebrity" isn't always talent. To be sure, people who have extraordinary abilities (like artists, writers, singers and athletes) attract notice and interest because our culture places a premium on their unique gifts. But people with no discernible talents, beyond the superficial (the Kardashian sisters, Paris Hilton), are celebrities, while many highly accomplished people (athletes among them) are left to ply their trades in relative anonymity. So being a celebrity is about something more, something intangible, and it's not always possible to predict who will pierce our collective consciousness and achieve iconic status.
Reading Currid-Halkett's book made me think about the connection between our desire to celebrate some people versus others in our culture, and the place of women's sports in American society. In our sports-obsessed world, male sports heroes have long been seen as cultural icons. As the modern-day equivalents of Greek and Roman warriors, our top men's sports figures are generally revered: We know their names, we recognize their faces, we're told and retold their stories, and we make time to watch them perform. They dominate the media (sports and otherwise); we talk about them at cocktail parties and next to the water cooler. For the most part, they're compensated handsomely to do what they do, and companies are willing to part with additional millions for their endorsements.
Like their counterparts in Hollywood or the recording industry, the biggest of the male sports stars have generated an interest in their personas completely outside the sports arena. In true celebrity fashion, A-Rod, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, LeBron James and David Beckham have the media (and the public) caring not just about their athletic exploits but also about who they date/marry (or just sleep with), how long their hair is, what designer duds they wear and what nightclubs they frequent in the offseason. They've reached the Holy Grail: in marketing jargon, they've become brands.
For women athletes, the path to -- and rewards of -- celebrity are less certain. A number of female sports stars have broken through to stardom over the years. Nadia Comaneci, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, the Williams sisters, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Marion Jones and Mia Hamm, to name a few, have attracted mainstream attention and are celebrities by any standard.
But even though the best of our female sports stars have made names for themselves, their celebrity hasn't always generated the same media infatuation or commercial benefits that their male counterparts have experienced. Annika Sorenstam was for many years the dominant force on the LPGA tour, but her career earnings and endorsement income paled in comparison to that of Woods in his heyday. Hamm stood as the biggest American name in the sport of soccer for the back half of the 1990s (and beyond), but the league she (and other women's World Cup stars) had a hand in starting folded after a few years of operation. Only a few of today's basketball players (men or women) have achieved more on the court than Diana Taurasi, but her earnings are well below the NBA minimum, and while she attracted attention recently for a reportedly positive drug test result, her extensive athletic accomplishments have gone relatively unacknowledged outside her sport.
Granted, much of this may be attributable to ongoing cultural discrepancies in interest levels in watching male and female athletes perform. In time, perhaps these levels will equalize, like they have in tennis, where, impressively, the celebrity quotients attached to the top male and female players are largely on par. In addition, for male and female athletes alike, intangibles such as looks and charisma frequently come into play.
It may also be the case that the top men's sports stars understand that celebrity is a business and are simply better at playing that game. The most famous of them have support systems that rival those of Hollywood's biggest stars: They have agents, handlers, business managers, lawyers, publicists, personal trainers, perhaps even wardrobe consultants and "stylists." In my experience, the women's sports community at times lags in its grasp of the important truth that in today's world, athletic performance, though essential to sports celebrity, is only part of the equation and that other factors are needed to attract the media buzz and average-fan-on-the-street interest that drives star power and its accompanying rewards.
So if female athletes truly want to be idols, and help elevate women's sports in the process, they have to step up on their playing surfaces, but they also need to get comfortable with the ins and outs of promotion and treat celebrity like the business it is. That means cultivating the right type of public profile; showing up at the right events; connecting with important people; understanding how today's media machinery works and manipulating it to their advantage; and working overtime to be noticed outside the confines of their athletic domains. Sarah Palin, anyone? You may not like what she says or how she says it, but she's got the celebrity part down to a T, and women's sports leaders would gain something from studying her playbook.
Sports have their rules. Being a celebrity has its rules, too -- and whether future female sports stars can rise up and become the cultural icons that women's sports need to keep advancing may well depend on how adept they are at playing the celebrity game.